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How Will Ohio State Replace...Raekwon McMillan
By Tony Gerdeman

COLUMBUS — Middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan has chosen to forego his final season of eligibility in order to enter the 2017 NFL Draft. He will be missed greatly as he was an integral part of Ohio State's defensive rebirth the last few years.

McMillan led the Buckeyes in tackles the last two seasons, joining former greats Marcus Marek, Pepper Johnson, Chris Spielman, Steve Tovar, Lorenzo Styles, A.J. Hawk, James Laurinaitis, and Ryan Shazier as the only OSU linebackers since 1970 to lead the team in tackles in consecutive years.

Yes, there will obviously be a lot of production to replace, but McMillan was also the quarterback of the defense. Not only will the Buckeyes need to find a tackling machine, but they'll also need to find one who has a complete understanding of everything the defense is asked to do.

Is that player on the roster right now? Probably, even if it may take some time for that to become readily apparent.

The Candidates

In the pre-spring depth charts I've done, Dante Booker is the guy I keep going with simply because he was one of the three best linebackers a season ago and I expect him to be that again in 2017. Unfortunately for him, his old Will linebacker spot is ably occupied by Jerome Baker. If it's not Booker, or there isn't a shuffling between Booker, Baker, and Chris Worley, then that means it's going to be a completely new and completely-inexperienced player.

Rising redshirt sophomore Nick Conner wasn't part of the two-deep a season ago and only played in three games. To expect him to emerge at the front of the line in the spring would be unrealistic. Similarly, rising redshirt sophomore Justin Hilliard has suffered season-ending injuries each of the last two seasons, and it's unclear just how ready for the spring he'll be after his latest (biceps) setback.

A trio of second-year players could possibly provide the answer. Rising sophomore Keandre Jones possesses tremendous athleticism and played well in limited minutes a year ago. He's likely a Will, but there's not a huge leap from Will to Mike, other than the need to be able to control the entire defensive alignment, of course.

Rising sophomore Malik Harrison played the Sam last year behind Chris Worley and saw action in 11 games. His athleticism suits him well for the outside, but the Buckeyes are going to put their best three linebackers on the field, and if he's one of them, then they'll figure it out.

Rising redshirt freshman Tuf Borland is another name to watch. He didn't play last season, but that never stopped teammates from complimenting his play throughout the season and during bowl practice. True freshman Baron Browning has already enrolled and will participate in spring ball, but it would be way too presumptuous to put him anywhere near this job. Pete Werner, a true freshman who will arrive in the summer, could be an inside linebacker down the road, but his time will not be this immediate.

Spring Outlook

We still don't know exactly which linebackers will be playing which positions, nor how hard-and-fast those roles are going to be. How much of an audition will each player get? And will everybody who wants a shot get a shot? If they like the first two guys they see, will that lock it up? How much of the spring will they use to simply figure out who best fits at what position? Or do they already know?

This is going to be new linebackers coach Billy Davis' first chance to get a hands-on look at his players, so he may want to see them in any number of positions and combinations. The spring should be a learning experience for both the coach and his players. Eventually, however, Urban Meyer is going to want a two-deep.

Best Bet

It's always a great feeling when the best bet is a complete guess without any confirmation from sources connected or otherwise, but I'm going to go with Dante Booker here again. I am more than happy to be told that I am wrong because I'd just like to have some direction here so I don't keep spitting out bad guesses.

Prediction

Billy Davis will leave the spring talking about the need to get Keandre Jones, Malik Harrison, and Tuf Borland on the field somehow this year. Jerome Baker and Chris Worley won't need to be overworked this spring, so expect the second-year guys to get a good amount of work somewhere. Just don't expect more than one of them to be getting that work in the middle.

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